Saturday, May 03, 2008

Be Happy: The American Refusal to Deal with Suffering

An interesting article from American Thinker.

Be Happy: The American Refusal to Deal with Suffering

God bless America. I mean that with all sincerity. We are a nation of hopefuls and always have been.

We march on Washington. We cure diseases that have wracked humanity for eons. We break records and run faster-than-four-minute miles. We split atoms and conquer space. We manifest our destinies and defy the presence of gorges, rivers, and mountains that threaten to block our collective will.

In our relatively short time on earth, this nation has spawned more utopian societies and splinter religions promising immediate deliverance than any other culture in history.

We not only hope. We demand. And we do not take "no" for an answer. If we have to move mountains, we move them even if we have to do it one truck load at a time. If we have to wipe out polio, we develop a vaccine. If we have to get across enemy lines, we build stealth aircraft. We believe that nothing can stop us but ourselves.

This, in and of itself, is not a consciousness unique to our time. There have been other warrior nations and empires that have been as bold and clever as we have. The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Romans have all forged paths through impossibly dense forests and forbidding deserts both concretely and metaphorically.

What IS unique to modern America is that our hopefulness comes with a price tag that no other culture has ever been willing to pay. It comes at the expense of reality and the medium of exchange is our spirit.

We want to be happy. We want to be healthy. We want to be wealthy. And, I believe, this "wanting" is only natural. What is not is that we want to be wealthy without having to work all that hard or study all that much. We want to be healthy without having to eat well, sleep through the night or exercise regularly. We want happiness and love and contentment without ever having to suffer or sacrifice. And we want it now.

Of the three "wants", the third is the most troubling and potentially poses the most subtle danger of our time. The first two (health and wealth) are primarily issues of entitlement which we may address at some other point. The third want-to be happy-is really a deeply ingrained psychic need. We need to be happy at the expense of what we know to be true. We need it so badly that we are forced to deny the obvious inevitability of suffering, rendering it not only meaningless but the mark of a "loser."

A friend of mine had a conversation with a young man that made this version of "happiness" starkly clear. After the young man praised a mutual acquaintance for buying a high-end television, my friend said to him, "I'd rather have nothing and be loved."

To which the young man responded, "That's just loser talk."

You can see this in New Age theology a great deal, where even sickness, injury, and tragedies are by definition self-inflicted and reveal an error in our core programming. In that philosophy, which has permeated the media and popular thinking, we are responsible for everything that happens to us and around us. Happiness, abundance, good health-all these things are seen as our birthrights. So, if we are suffering, if our loved ones are suffering, well, that just means we're writing bad scripts for our lives.

In some ways it is a uniquely American way of nipping God in His Achilles' heel. It says that if there is a God, then it all has to be good, all the time. Evil cannot exist. Because Americans are basically a religious people, for us not to disavow God, we must disavow evil, and by extension, disavow suffering. This is dangerous because in order to do this, in order to deny the value and meaning of suffering, in order to be able to say to someone "If you're not happy or successful something is wrong with you," we have to deny the only real hope we ever had: our souls.
Read the rest.

I agree with what the author is saying here, and it's one of the reasons that I have issues with the positive psychology movement -- they tend to disavow suffering in their quest to discover and promote the strengths that allow us to thrive.

For me, since I accept the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, suffering is the nature of relative existence -- it can't be disavowed, only transcended through enlightenment. Since few of us are ever going to become Buddhas, suffering is the best teacher to make progress on the path.

The author of the article draws another, equally valid conclusion -- that suffering is necessary to know love.
In writing this article, I had to ask myself: Why shouldn't I avoid suffering? What's in it for me, for anyone? It's a fair question. And the answer I came up with was this: By being present for suffering, we become present for the whole of life, not just the niceties. And the reward is nothing less than the ability to love fully. This is not a philosophical point. It is a most pragmatic, palpable benefit and the only one that really means anything after all. When I think of all the things I did as a young adult to make myself "happy," all the risks I took, all the hurt I created in myself and others-all in the name of happiness, I literally shudder. I rarely actually felt happy and almost never felt deep love. The mantra "whatever makes you happy" ran my life but gave me nothing but heartache.
A good point. I did the same thing when I was in my 20s. At some point in my 30s I began to "get" that suffering is a wonderful teacher. Yes, we need to know pain to know happiness; but more importantly, our pain can teach us a great deal about who we are and where we are wounded.

The only way to heal is to identify and get to know our suffering, our wounding -- with curiosity and compassion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I also find that this need to be "happy" has created a culture that does not know how to grieve. The inability to acknowledge and express grief has significant consequences for the psyche and spirit. I think Rumi's poem, The Guest House, describes best the attitude to take. Unfortunately, I can't find it right now.